We must not exaggerate the dangers of cycling

Jeremy Vine's article only reinforced a sense of conflict, and didn't include safety facts

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The Independent Online

I hesitate to wade into a debate about cycling because few debates have the potential to be as tiresome or polluted with counter-productive hot air, but I think it’s worth responding to Jeremy Vine’s article today in the Daily Mail.

First, we should note that writers don’t write headlines or have a say about the layout of a page in print. Our words can also be edited.

The headline on page 15 of the Mail today: Why do so many drivers want to KILL ME! (“KILL ME” is produced in a huge typeface).

Below this, Vine writes about cycling in London over the past two years, recently while wearing a helmet-cam to record incidents or near misses. Judging by his words, it’s a wonder he’s still alive and in possession of four limbs.

For example: 

-“Every morning when I leave the house, my wife says farewell in the manner of Japanese women who waved off pilot husbands in World War II.

-“If nothing else, cycling in a major British city reminds you to make a will and tell your mum you love her.

-“In the morning, I dress like a U.S. Navy Seal on his way to shoot Bin Laden. I am kitted out like a soldier and sometimes behave like one because London’s roads are a battlefield and my life is at stake.

-“I feel like I have become involved in a war that puts my life at risk every time I strap on my helmet.”

Putting to one side the mixed military metaphor, and the temptation of any writer to exaggerate, I wonder what Vine wanted to achieve here. I think that a prominent cyclist with recourse to a full page in a national newspaper ought to set out to make cycling safer and more pleasant. Perhaps Vine hopes to do this by shocking all road users. Instead, I fear, he only reinforces an exaggerated sense of conflict and danger.

Vine could have included a few safety stats, which reveal how safe cycling is. When I suggested this to him on Twitter this morning, he replied: “There is only one safety stat: in two years cycling I have been in one collision, emerged unhurt.” Why not include that in the article?

This isn’t a huge deal and we shouldn’t be surprised that newspapers like publishing controversial articles. But that’s the problem, because little things like this reinforce misleading impressions about roads. In more than six years of very regular cycling in and out of London, I have never been hit by a vehicle nor suffered any injury more serious than a strained shoulder.  I can count the number of genuine near misses I’ve experienced in that time on one hand. I think I’ve had more as a pedestrian.

This isn’t to tempt fate or big myself up, or to question Vine’s experience or right to write about it, but I do think that to paint the picture he has today without the required balance risks fuelling conflict, making the roads less safe for himself and everyone else. Worst, perhaps, he risks putting off any would-be cyclist who might read his words about the horror of it all. Which would be a shame.